Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 2 Number 7, July 2003
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
[Author's note: Most months I am scrambling to produce this e-Zine at
the end of the month; last month I knew the SIGGRAPH conference was
coming to San Diego for the last week of July 2003 and I would be
swamped by attending the conference as well as producing the parallel
SIGKIDS event. (A report on both these is coming soon.) So I decided
to write a shorter, fluffier piece, on the role of literature in a
cybernetics education, and to finish it a few weeks early. I thought
I had it pretty near done by mid-July, and then the SIGGRAPH wave
struck early, swamping me as expected, and amidst it all my Gateway(R)
computer died, and Gateway ended up erasing my hard drive out of sheer
greed and laziness, and this nuked my bulk mail program, which took
a while for me to reconstruct. (A report on this Java code and its
implications is also coming soon.) So that's why the July 2003 e-Zine
is so late. But I learned one thing: I really am incapable of writing
a short, fluffy piece; this one has already expanded into a 2-parter.]
Remembrance of Things Proust
"I believe, contrary to the fashion among our contemporaries,
that one can have a very lofty idea of literature, and at
the same time have a good-natured laugh at it."
-- Marcel Proust, writing to a friend
The "criticism" of literature is so cliched in our society that it
goes by the shorthand "lit. crit." Along with the brick-backed
stages of the stand-up comedians, it is the modern hiding place of
the moral philosopher and the social revolutionary. Marshall McLuhan
began his academic career writing lit. crit. of Edgar Allen Poe,
before writing his first media analysis (still in the lit. crit.
mode), "The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man" (1951).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1584230509/hip-20 )
Come to thing of it, just about everything McLuhan wrote stayed
in this mode (until he branched out into the "collage books"
previously introduced in the mid-1960s by young Catholic priests
trying to reach out to estranged youth). Of course, the whole
"Deconstructionist" movement is an attempt at shredding the very
concept of literature without questioning the cultural importance
of and ongoing need for lit. crit. Perhaps the lit. crit. mode
is still preferred because it allows the freest use of quotations
without violating copyrights; most publishers regard lit. crit. as
"fair use." Or perhaps there really is still much to be said about
But this is a cybernetics e-Zine. What does literature have to do
with cybernetics? Well, for me there are three connections, one
universal and important, one certainly non-trivial, and the third
personal and idiosyncratic and possibly quite trivial.
The important connection is this: from ancient heroic poetry,
to the Greek invention of drama, to the Commedia Del'Arte in
Renaissance Italy (prototype of "Punch and Judy") to the modern
novel form, literature has served as a sort of alternate repository
of cultural wisdom; when religion and politics became corrupt,
when emperors went crazy (like Caligula), when Kings ripped up
the social fabric (like Henry the VIII), no one dared speak up;
but the parables in literature, of corrupting power and ruinous
greed and vanity devolving into madness, could be read silently
and used to guide the quiet resistance to the destructive authority.
Yet even when the crisis is passed, literature still serves as
a repository to arm us against the hundreds of petty crises of each
"ordinary" day: it contains hidden wisdom about epistemology,
about how we construct our reality. This is wisdom which we are
likely to ignore when preached to us by linguists and psychologists,
as long as we are tyrannized by our own "mad king," the ego.
But when we read about one who was more foolish than even us, whose
epistemological errors are tragically obvious, we tend to get the
The second connection is through my mentor, Gregory Bateson.
Bateson was a founder of cybernetics, and he seemed always
to prefer examples from literature for whatever he was explaining.
Cambridge-educated during the age of Greek and Latin instruction,
his favorite author was William Blake, but to his dismay he
found that most American students only knew the poem, "The Tiger"
(also known as "Tiger, Tiger") with its questionable rhyme of
"eye" and "symmetry," and even then only a minority had read it.
Once in his survey class of about 150 students he was casting
about for a work of literature that almost all of us had read,
by a show of hands, and after several failed attempts, which I
believe included Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798)
and Milton's "Paradise Lost," he asked in desperation, "What do they
make American students read?" I blurted out, "Moby Dick!" and
he looked astonished. "Moby Dick?" he asked with incredulity.
"How many have read Moby Dick?" Almost all the hands went up.
He was stunned. I still remember him shaking his his head and
muttering "They make them read Moby Dick..." He went on to
explain his point, which I've now totally forgotten, using the
whiteness of Melville's whale instead of the "golden fire" of
Coleridge's water-snakes as his example. But his passion for
the Coleridge later moved me to read it, and to find this passage:
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
( icg.harvard.edu/~hsci278/Readings_on_Imagination/The_Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner.htm )
The third connection seems to be a biographical accident,
but I'm going to trace it anyway. I first learned of cybernetics
by reading several issues of the quarterly "Whole Earth Catalog"
(WEC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the misnamed
"Last Whole Earth Catalog" (1971).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394704592/hip-20 )
By then I was in Santa Cruz, and when I learned that Stewart Brand
and his staff published the WEC out of a storefront called the
"Whole Earth Truck Store" in nearby Menlo Park, I made a pilgrimage.
I was able to buy some very rare publications, including a little
(132-page) comic book sized (7x10.5 inch) "Last Supplement to the
Whole Earth Catalog" (1971) edited by Ken Kesey and Paul Krassner
as a favor (I gathered) to Stewart Brand, who was too busy for
the last of his 8-times-a-year supplements because he was editing
the monster-sized last WEC.
( lopezbooks.com/vs1/vs1-25.html )
This remarkable booklet has a cover by underground cartoonist
R. Crumb portraying "whole earth" hippies at the Last Supper,
guarded by a light bulb with a rifle who looks a lot like Reddy
Kilowatt, the electricity logo. At one point I claimed to have
been convinced that this "supplement" was the greatest publication
ever to emerge from Western Civilization. (Hey, I was a college
student, and I don't remember now if I really believed it or I was
This vanguard collection introduced me first to ginseng tea,
acidophilus milk, laetrile as natural cancer fighter, the Sufis,
public access television, and Meher Baba ("don't worry, be happy"),
among many other things.
Standing out in my recollection was an essay by Ken Kesey called
"Tools From My Chest," clearly a response to Stewart Brand's WEC
sub-title "Access to Tools," which took up more pages that any
other single piece. It was later reprinted in "Kesey's Garage Sale"
(1973) when Ken slapped together some stuff to sell to make money.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0670412686/hip-20 )
Here is the list of "tools" from his chest:
S. Clay Wilson
golf [he was against it]
Quicksilver Messenger Service
City Lights Bookstore
Ashley Automatic [wood stove]
Anonymous Artists of America
acid - no [street purity issues]
psilocybin - no [street purity issues]
STP - no
downers - no
tranquilizers - no
grass - yes
Since the way Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand know each other is from
travels together on a day-glo school bus called FURTHER, which
carried around a band of psychedelic reality hackers called "The
Merry Pranksters" in the 1960s, as documented in Tom Wolfe's "The
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553380648/hip-20 )
the drugs and rock 'n' roll should come as no surprise. But remember
also that Ken Kesey isn't famous for this -- he's famous for writing
two novels, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1962),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0451163966/hip-20 )
and "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1963)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140045295/hip-20 )
both of which were made into movies; one with Jack Nicholson
and the other with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/630018188X/hip-20 )
In other words, history will remember him primarily as a literary
figure: Ken Kesey (1935 - 2001) and that is also the only reason
his "pranks" were noticed by the mainstream in the first place.
In any event, it definitely piqued my interest that he listed
Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Burroughs, Richard
Brautigan and Larry McMurtry among his "tools."
- Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)
Hemingway I thought I knew all about. In 11th grade high school
English class I was required to read "The Old Man and the Sea"
(1950), Hemingway's last novel.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684801221/hip-20 )
None of us liked it very much. Fortunately, we had a wonderful
teacher, Mrs. Dorsey, who told us 16-year-olds (circa 1970) that
this was an old man's novel, and we should try rereading it in 25
years. (I'm about 8 years overdue now in 2003, but I just don't
feel old enough yet.) In the mean time, she recommended his
first novel, "Sun Also Rises" (1920).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684800713/hip-20 )
This I loved. At age 16 it led me to buy a bota (wine bag)
in Tijuana and learn to drink from it like Hemingway's fiesta
goers, and to fantasize of sipping Italian coffees at
outdoor cafe tables in rural Spain, while planning a trip
with friends to run with the bulls in Pamplona. But in re-reading
of this book last year I was astounded to discover that although
I'd enjoyed the details at 16 I missed the whole plot and the
whole point, which were far more obvious at 48. The hero
gave up so much, his money, his friends in Spain, even some of
his reputation, in pointless sacrifice for a woman he couldn't
have and probably wouldn't want anyway, for what? It seemed like
for infatuation's sake. But if I saw more of the tragedy, I
also saw more of the beauty. I was getting closer to Kesey's
appreciation, as he described it in "Tools...":
...don't be misled by the bodies of bullfighters or the
riddled remains of soldiers; look instead for live trout
on the bottom vibrating against the clear current, or bacon
fat going cold on a veteran's breakfast plate, or old
boards going sharp into focus through a pair of binoculars;
in those delicate transitions where nothing actually moves
you may find something of the slow and gentle old giant.
In 11th grade Mrs. Dorsey read us a short, surreal, satirical
play by Hemingway called "Today is Friday," about some Roman
soldiers having a beer after crucifying Jesus. I heartily
recommend it, along with the acidic "A Very Short Story."
Both can be found in "The Complete Short Stories Of Ernest
Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684843323/hip-20 )
- William Faulkner (1897 - 1962)
Faulkner I'd also studied in 11th grade as part of American
English Literature. If answering an essay question I would
work in that he lived in and wrote about the American south,
and one of his books was "The Bear," the only two facts I knew
about him. Later, in college in Santa Cruz, I hung out with two
women in town who were descended from big land owners in Santa
Cruz. Where once there'd stood a grand Victorian hotel, owned
by their family, a street still had the family name. All that
was left for these sisters was a small house; they both
worked jobs at barely above minimum wage at the nearby Santa
Cruz Boardwalk amusement park, which was where I met them,
running kiddy rides. One of them highly recommended Faulkner's
"As I Lay Dying" (1930).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/067973225X/hip-20 )
I tried to read it around 1973, because of her, and because of these
words by Kesey:
...yes if Southern Comfort is overcloying in honeysuckle
sweet decadence it is still one of the few hundred proofs
that a man can sip and not be burned; yes, Faulkner is my
(I did because of this passage end up putting Southern Comfort in
my bota, which now in retrospect seems insane.)
I tried reading "As I Lay Dying" again last week, 30 years later.
I'm still not ready. But I did like the hypnotic sounds of Cash
building the coffin for Addie:
When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a
litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together.
Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like
soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the
marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds
the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a
quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the
edge of them, the he lowers them and takes up the adze. A
good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one,
a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and
comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze.
- William Burroughs (1914 - 1997)
Now, William Burroughs, this was a guy I had never heard of before
Kesey described him this way:
I used to say that I thought Burroughs was the only writer
who had done anything new with writing since Shakespeare.
I don't say it so much any more but I still think it's
What followed was a quote from "Nova Express" (1964) that blew
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0802133304/hip-20 )
This quote began:
PRISONERS, COME OUT
"DON'T LISTEN to Hassan i Sabbah" they will tell you.
"He wants to take your body and all pleasures of the
body away from you. Listen to us. We are serving The
Garden of Delights Immortality Cosmic Consciousness The
Best Ever in Drug Kicks. And LOVE LOVE LOVE in slop buckets.
How does that sound to you boys? Better than Hassan i Sabbah
and his cold windy bodiless rock?"
At the immediate risk of finding myself the most unpopular
character in all of fiction -- and history is fiction --
I must say this:
"Bring together state of news -- Inquire onward from state
to doer -- Who monopolized Immortality? Who monopolized Cosmic
Consciousness? Who monopolized Love Sex and Dream? Who
monopolized Time Life and Fortune? ... "
...and so on. At Kresge College in the mid-1970s -- especially on
days when classes were out, like January 1st -- it was not too
uncommon for small groups "tripping" on LSD to wander the college,
huddled together for mutual support and experiencing the freakier
aspects of the college's "Post-Modern" architecture.
( www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/moorekresge/kresge.html )
This was at a time when I was adamantly anti-drug (a position I
have softened on since due to scientific evidence and Libertarian
politics), and I would sometimes amuse myself by mounting one of
the many Dr. Seuss-like podiums or balconies in the college and
haranguing the trippers by reading aloud Kesey's quote from
Burroughs. By the time I got to the last paragraph:
Minutes to go. Souls rotten from their orgasm drugs,
flesh shuddering from their nova ovens, prisoners of the
earth to COME OUT. With your help we can occupy The Reality
Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly --
"(Signed) INSPECTOR J. LEE, NOVA POLICE"
...I was screaming, with spittle flying out of my mouth like a madman.
It was fun. (Later I was given a copy of "Nova Express" as a gift,
and I am still trying to read it.)
Apparently I wasn't the only one who liked to shout his stuff.
Satirical rock band the Fugs constructed an audio collage using
phrases from Burroughs' books layered with electric guitar sounds,
called "Burroughsian Time Grid," as a part of the larger piece called
"Virgin Forest" on their second album, "The Fugs Second Album."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000000XEG/hip-20 )
It's in the 10th track on the album, which is 11 minutes
and 16 seconds in full; the Burroughs bit is about a minute long,
from 5:57 to 6:57 in the track.
- Richard Brautigan (1935 - 1984)
Brautigan I had discovered in high school, about the same time as
I learned about the "Dada" artists in the 1920s in Europe and America,
and his "Trout Fishing in America" (1967) fit right in with that.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0440391253/hip-20 )
It had a section called "Prelude to the Mayonnaise Chapter" in
which he said "Expressing a human need, I've always wanted to
write a book that ended with the word mayonnaise." And, by
golly, he did!
One of my all-time favorite poems is Brautigan's:
"Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt"
San Francisco Chronicle Headline June 26, 1942
Rommel is dead.
His army has joined the quicksand legions
of history where battle is always
a metal echo saluting a rusty shadow.
His tanks are gone.
How's your ass?
(This poem appears in the collection of the same name:
Of course, he also wrote the only poem I've ever read that mentions
cybernetics, "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,"
which was quoted in the WEC:
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
This also is the first time I ever saw the words "cybernetic"
and "ecology" used in the same sentence.
This poem was printed in a "broadside" that was distributed free
in San Francisco in 1967; today copies are collectibles worth
hundreds of dollars.
( www.lopezbooks.com/highlight.php?ac=3&id=019121&back=%2Fsection.php%3Fc%3DBroadside%26p%3D1 )
The original copyright notice says "Permission is granted to
reprint any of these poems in magazines, books and newspapers
if they are given away free." The poem is reprinted in "The Pill
vs. the Springhill Mining Disaster" (1968).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0395500761/hip-20 )
Also, John F. Barber reprints the poem on a page "Promoting
Cybernetic Ecology in Writing Classrooms."
( wac.colostate.edu/aw/articles/barber2000/frameset.html )
These days the only places I find Brautigan are on the internet
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/external-search?tag=hip-20&keyword=richard%20brautigan&mode=blended )
and at the old City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (another
of Kesey's "tools").
( www.citylights.com/ )
- Larry McMurtry (1936 - )
This (the only author in Kesey's list who is still alive)
was one who was in a creative writing class with him at Stanford,
and so I'd always sort of thought this was a plug for a buddy:
This is the guy that wrote "Hud." He can write of Texas
and our great southwest with an eye both on how it is and
how it was; he sees whatever good there was in our fast
fading lone prarie dream, and sees as well the present
plastic pestilence carpeting the plains like a variety
of Astroturf crabgrass. He's a beautiful writer.
"Leaving Cheyenne" is my favorite.
To be precise, McMurtry's "Horseman, Pass By" (1961)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/068485385X/hip-20 )
-- which I havn't read -- was made into movie "Hud" (1963) with
Paul Newman and Patricia Neal
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6300215962/hip-20 )
-- which I haven't seen. (I did read the "Mad Magazine" satire
when I was ten years old.)
"Leaving Cheyenne" (1963) is on my to-read shelf right now;
my wife says it's good too.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671753800/hip-20 )
If I were to be writing a review of McMurtry today, I might lead
with his writing "Terms of Endearment" (1975)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684853906/hip-20 )
-- which I also haven't read -- and mention that it was made into a
movie in 1983 with Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito,
Jeff Daniels, Debra Winger and John Lithgow
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000055ZF6/hip-20 )
-- which I haven't seen either. But enough about what I haven't
read or seen.
Of all the writers on Kesey's list, this is the one whose
works I've read the most, the one whose works I seek out to
read for pleasure, the one whose books seem to be over too
quickly instead of taking 30 years to half read. This is the
guy I get the most "juice" from. Clearly he wasn't just
"plugging a buddy" when he recommended his contemporary.
Not the first thing I read by McMurtry, but the first to make a
major impression, was "Lonesome Dove" (1985).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/067168390X/hip-20 )
(It made major impression on some other people too, winning a
Pulitzer Prize.) I read it around 1990, when business travel
was taking me frequently to Dallas and El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces,
Los Alamos and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Phoenix and Tucson,
Arizona, and the high desert of California. I ended up on a sort
of "Western" kick, got the boots and hat and the coyote bandana,
listened to some Spaghetti Western soundtracks
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000002WFD/hip-20 )
and Chris Isaak alternative/Western crooning,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000002LGI/hip-20 )
and after some serious urging from a lot of people including my dad
I started in on the book that some folks were calling "the greatest
Western novel ever written." I read it on my travels.
I remember visiting Old Tucson Studios, a movie set outside of
Tucson, Arizona where a number of Western movies were filmed,
including "Arizona" (1939), "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (1956),
"Rio Bravo" (1959), "Have Gun Will Travel" (1962), "Hombre" (1966),
"Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970), "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean"
(1972), "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976), "Three Amigos" (1986)
and "Tombstone" (1993), as well as the television shows "Bonanza"
(1966, '71, '72), "Death Valley Days" (1966-69), "High Chaparral"
(1966-'71) and "Little House on the Prairie" (1977-1983).
( www.oldtucson.com/ )
I was on a business trip and had a few hours before my flight,
so I moseyed over. The first thing I noticed was the cell phone
coverage was great, but hey, this was show biz. The second thing
I noticed was a strong sense of deja vu, from all the movies I'd
seen set on this one town's street. Saloons and livery in the
foreground, a plain of saguaro cactus and purple mountains in the
background, and an Arizona sunset brewing on the horizon.
So far my "Western" kick had been a fairly superficial fashion
statement, and Old Tucson seemed to feed this, playing soundtrack
music from old Westerns over blaring loudspeakers. I was reminded
of the Smothers Brothers version of the song "The Streets of Laredo,"
on their album "Sibling Revelry -- The Best of the Smothers Brothers."
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0000063EI/hip-20 )
Tom: I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
Dick: I see by your outfit you are a cowboy too.
Both: We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
And if you get an outfit you can be a cowboy too!
It's the kind of behavior they mock every week in "The Onion."
( www.onion.com )
I can just see the headline now: "GUY LIVING IN L.A. BUYS
COWBOY HAT, PLAYS STEEL SLIDE GUITAR MUSIC ON CAR STEREO."
But as I immersed myself in "Lonesome Dove" that began to change.
Sitting on a bench outside the bank building on the western street,
bathed in the red-oranges of just another fabulous Arizona sunset,
this fascinating tale of the "closing of the west" unfolded before me,
as a sort of "anti-western." The novel begins with a quote from
a historian of America's West, and I found myself flipping back
to reread it as I reached what seemed to be the core metaphor of the
novel (young cowboys on one of the last big cattle drives into new
territory, who are totally at home on the range, paralyzed with fear
at the prospect of climbing a flight of wooden steps to reach a modest
upstairs brothel in a small frontier town):
All America lies at the end of a wilderness road,
and our past is not a dead past, but still lives
in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside
themselves, the wild outside. We live in the
civilization they created, but within us the
wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we
live, and they lived, we dream."
T. K. Whipple, "Study Out the Land"
I imagined the young cowboys' fears at climbing those steps, of even
entering the town, where danger lay in unknown, human forms,
not like the familiar dangers of nature on the cattle drive.
At last I was getting inside the West, by finding what was left
of it inside me. I strained to keep reading by dusk's light.
An ornery looking feller in a black hat walked up to the bank.
"You better get a move on," he said. "I'm fixin' to rob this
bank." I obliged him. "what's that you're readin' there?"
he asked as I moved to a bench next door.
"Lonesome Dove," I told him, "They tell me it's the greatest
Western novel ever written."
"That's what I hear," he concurred, and then he held up the bank,
firing blanks until he was "shot dead" by the Sheriff of Old Tucson.
The book was subsequently made into a television mini-series (1989)
starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover and Robert Urich
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005Y6YB/hip-20 )
and it's quite entertaining, but it pales in comparison to McMurtry's
Almost twenty years previously McMurtry had written what everyone
assumes is his most autobiographical work, "The Last Picture Show"
(1966), about growing up as working poor in a small oil patch town
in West Texas in the 1950s.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684853868/hip-20 )
It was made into movie "The Last Picture Show" (1971) with Timothy
Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman and Randy
Quaid, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767827902/hip-20 )
There is no doubt that Bogdanovich was playing the auteur here,
making a European-style "art" film out of what I'm sure the studio
saw as another "youth exploitation" coming-of-age B movie sex comedy
for the drive-in circuit. They probably freaked when he wanted
to shoot it in black and white.
The movie was a hit with the public and the critics, a masterful
blend of low-brow and high-brow, like a Dr. Pepper sign seen through
the eyes of impressionist painter Claude Monet. It also was bathed
in scandal: actress Cybill Shepherd in her first role managed to
appear in full frontal nudity and then to run off with the film's
But, in its defense, the film lead me to the book. I read it in the
early 1980s, and I remember very vividly finishing it, putting it
down, and thinking, "Boy, I am REALLY GLAD that I didn't grow up in
west Texas in the 1950s!"
I think the best way to contrast this book with its sequels is
to look at the first two paragraphs of each. "The Last Picture Show"
Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in
the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in
the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the
way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night
before Sonny had played his last game of football for Thalia
High School, but it wasn't that that made him feel so strange
and alone. It was just the look of the town.
There was only one car parked on the courthouse square --
the night watchman's old white Nash. A cold norther was
singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down
Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.
Sonny's pickup was a '41 Chevrolet, not at its best on cold
mornings. In front of the picture show it coughed out and had
to be choked for a while, but then it started again and jerked
its way to the red light, blowing out spumes of white exhaust
that the wind whipped away.
"Texasville" (1987) begins:
Duane was in the hot tub, shooting at his new doghouse with a
.44 Magnum. The two-story log doghouse was supposedly a replica
of a frontier fort. He and Karla had bought it at a home show in
Fort Worth on a day when they were both bored. It would have
housed several Great Danes comfortably, but so far had housed
nothing. Shorty, the only dog Duane could put up with, never
went near it.
Every time a slug hit the doghouse, slivers of white wood flew.
The yard of the Moore's new mansion had just been seeded, at
enormous expense, but the grass had a tentative look. The house
stood on a long, narrow, rocky bluff, overlooking a valley
pockmarked with well sites, saltwater pits and oily little
roads leading from one oil pump to the next. The bluff was
not a very likely place to grow Bermuda grass, but six acres
of it had been planted anyway. Karla took the view that you
could make anything happen if you spent enough money.
Now here is a book about surviving affluent middle age in a small oil
patch town in West Texas in the 1980s.
It was made into a movie in 1990 by the same director with almost
exactly the same cast: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd,
Cloris Leachman and Randy Quaid; only Ellen Burstyn was missing, and
a major addition was Annie Potts as Duane's wife Karla.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000069I00/hip-20 )
The critics and public didn't like it.
In this case I read the book first, and actually thought the movie
improved on the book, especially in the balance of story elements.
One thing I liked in the book, though, that was missing from the movie,
was a subtle cameo appearance by the author. Actually, you only get
to see his house, which the Cybill Shepherd character Jacy Farrow
is borrowing (or house-sitting). But it is unmistakable:
Duane wandered through the house, amazed at the number
of books it contained. Room after room had bookshelves
filled with books from floor to ceiling. The halls were
also lined with books -- thousands of them. Duane had never
supposed that any one person would want, or own, so many books.
I can relate. That's my house. It has always been that way for me,
since my mid-twenties, and it's gotten more extreme since I started
writing a book over the last year, as well as writing this e-Zine.
Sometimes it seems like my life is filled with reading and writing,
with breaks for eating and excreting, exercise and sleep, kissing
my wife and my daughter, and occasional vacations to Las Vegas or
Orlando or San Francisco.
The latest book in what they're now calling the "Thalia Trilogy"
(after the town with no picture show but lots of satellite dishes)
is "Duane's Depressed" (1999).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0743230159/hip-20 )
Its first two paragraphs are:
Two years into his sixties, Duane Moore -- a man who had driven
pickups for as long as he had been licensed to drive -- parked
his pickup in his own carport one day and began to walk wherever
The carport was a spacious affair, built to house six cars in
the days when cars still had some size; now that cars had been
miniaturized -- as had horses -- the carport could accommodate
ten vehicles and might have accommodated as many as a dozen if
the vehicles had been parked with some care; but care, defined
as a capacity for attention to such things as order and propriety,
was not something that most members of Duane's large family had
proven to be capable of or interested in -- not so far, at least.
In the Moore carport cars tended to stack up behind one another,
so that the person who had parked in front could rarely get his
or her car out without a bitter quarrel, sometimes involving
fisticuffs, with the person or persons whose car or cars were
parked behind theirs.
Of the three books I find this one to be the best written and the
What is McMurtry doing right? What is it about his novels that
nurture this student of cybernetics? I found one big clue was that
the last half of "Duane's Depressed" involved the relevance of
19th century French novelist Marcel Proust to the problems of
surviving old age and life's disappointments in West Texas at the
end of the 20th Century.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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